First of all, there seems to be an assumption –and this is not just in Wodening’s article, but generally within Heathenry---that ‘patronage’ means focusing one’s attention on one Deity to the exclusion of all others, almost as though it’s some twisted version of monotheism creeping into polytheistic practice. That’s not necessarily the case, no more than having a spouse means you never talk to anyone of the opposite sex again. (Probably a poor analogy but I’m still on my first cup of coffee so y’all are going to have to deal with it).
Then of course, there’s the misguided idea that the purpose of patronage is to extort favors and gifts, or blessings from the Deity in question. Wodening writes in the first two lines of his article: “The idea behind it is that one dedicates one’s self [sic] to a single deity, and seeks special insight, favors, or gifts from them.” This is a common idea in Heathenry that doesn’t just crop up with the concept of patronage, but with the concept of prayer, ritual, and offering in general. There’s an overwhelming idea within the community that the only reason to pray (or do ritual or any other devotionally oriented practice) is to ask for things. There’s not really any community wide comprehension that one can have a relationship, a deeply satisfying, mutually beneficial, and intently engaged relationship that is not based around the need to constantly be making requests. It’s almost as though the dominant trope of Heathen spirituality is an immature one, where the Gods are only there to grant wishes. Anything more, anything approximating a more devotionally aware spirituality is suspect. (I suppose the idea is ‘why pray if you can’t get things? What are these Gods for anyway?’ because of course, it’s all about us and what we can get).
Magnanimously, of course, Wodening allows that there’s nothing wrong with the abovementioned type of attitude toward patronage. Of course, it’s also not what having a Divine patron is all about, which Wodening would know, if he actually had one (which, in his article, he implies he does not). I should mention that I do not fault someone for having or not having a Patron. Whether one does or does not have such a relationship with a Deity or Deities does not, in fact, make one a better or worse Heathen than anyone else. It’s not a matter of personal value or worth, something that I’m going to be coming back to a little later on in this article. I just wanted to get that out of the way now, because I think the assumption that having a Patron somehow makes one “better” is part of the reason that the concept is so problematic amongst Heathens who don’t.
There is an unfortunate idea that crops up in Heathenry again and again (ok, there are a lot of unfortunate ideas that crop up in Heathenry repeatedly, this is just the one I happen to be focusing on today) that the Gods only took an interest in Heathens of the past, kings and heroes and other (to use Wodening’s terminology) “extraordinary” people, of whom there aren’t many running around today. I find it particularly ironic that Wodening specifically notes—before any other descriptive factor-- that to have the attention of a Deity one must be independently wealthy. What a marvelous indicator of character and spiritual excellence. How 20th century. How Protestant.(1)
That’s really part of the problem, you see. So much of contemporary Heathen culture, far from being rooted in anything indigenous, is rooted in a deeply Protestant mindset. When I was doing my first graduate degree, I read a book by Max Weber called “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” I was expecting to be rather bored, but instead, I was shocked –as the saying goes—to my foundation. What Weber describes in his work was, essentially, what I saw every day within contemporary American Heathenry.(2) While I had long suspected that the high percentage of Heathens having converted from Protestant fundamentalisms might have something to do with certain unfortunate aspects of community attitudes, until I read and studied Weber’s work, beginning with this text, I had no idea of how deeply entrenched the Protestant Weltanschauung was within the contemporary Heathen world.
What does this mean for our discussion here? Well, for starters (and I’ll even itemize it in a list to make things easy):
- For starters, a high value is placed on finding fulfillment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form of moral activity (Weber, my paraphrase, p. 40). Involvement and engagement with the world –not a bad thing, in fact, quite a necessary thing—becomes the only acceptable form of religious expression. This consciously and adamantly excludes monasticism, mysticism, and anything approximating direct engagement with the Powers.
- The more emotional aspects of religious life are viewed with suspicion at best and hostility at worst. Anything which is not placed securely in the mundane world is viewed with suspicion. (Weber, p. 76).
- A repudiation of anything spiritual (outside of focus on the world), emotional (within the realm of spirituality) and esoteric permeates the religion. This goes hand in hand with a distrust of anything sensual. (Really, have you seen contemporary Heathen aesthetics?). If it involves the body, it’s suspect….(see my article below on ordeal work. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had Heathens ask me, with some desperation, ‘why does it have to be so body focused’?).
- A very prosaic rationality stands as the driving force behind both Protestant and Heathen ethics, to a degree that attempts not only to leave no room for Mystery, but to quash and destroy it. Direct engagement with the Powers is no longer viewed as a rational or worthwhile goal.
- In something almost like a certain twisted Calvinism, there’s an unconscious worry about whether or not one is of the spiritual elect. Of course, no Heathen would phase it that way, but I believe this question of moral, personal, and spiritual value is at the heart of much of the discomfort and controversy of issues like Patronage. After all, this attitude says, if one has a close relationship with a Deity, isn’t that person saying he or she is better than everyone else?
- A discomfort with religious ceremony, particularly if there are any ecstatic or mystic elements. (Weber, p. 61). This is one of the reasons that early Protestants stripped their churches of anything sensual or lush that spoke to the sensorium.
- An obsession with rugged individualism and supremacy of personal will. (see Weber, p. 72)
- A deeply rooted antagonism to anything smacking of aristocracy or the elite. The majority of American Heathens are staunchly working class and for all the talk about the need to be well versed in lore, there is, I believe, a deep distrust of intellectualism and education….we argue lore not like academics but like Baptist bible scholars and there’s a world of difference in critical thinking between the two and that bleeds over into the dominant community dynamic. This, of course, impacts community response to things like patronage, which can be (incorrectly) viewed as a type of spiritual elitism.
- Finally, to go back to Wodening’s comment on wealth as a sign of Divine favor, nothing could be more Protestant. The idea that one’s state in life is a direct indicator of one’s character and the state of one’s soul is at the core of Weber’s treaties on Protestant ethics and the rise of Capitalism.(3)
I’m throwing these ideas out as food for thought. I’d like to add to the mix the fact that the secularism of American society is, in reality, deeply Christian. In fact, it’s specifically Protestant.(4) All of these things have seeped into Heathenry from the beginning of its restoration without examination, without conscious awareness. All of it impacts the way a huge swath of American Heathens view aspects of spiritual life and its expression, things like the potential for Patronage.
The real problem is what patronage implies: that a person has a special relationship with a Deity. I think this is, however, yet another area where Wodening’s article misses the mark. He doesn’t seem to clearly differentiate between ‘dedication’ to a Deity and ‘Patronage.” Oh, he notes that he’s dedicated to Woden and Frigga and is quick to point out that much can be gained from working with more than one Deity but he doesn’t clearly delineate the difference between the two facets of practice. he also assumes, incorrectly, (as I’ve already noted) that someone in a Patronage relationship with a Deity will only honor or in his parlance ‘work with’ that Deity, as though Patronage excludes polytheism which is a particularly vexing binary way of viewing things. Only in monotheism does devotion to one God nullify and exclude one’s ability to honor Others. It’s not an ‘either/or.’
The difference between dedication and patronage, by the way, is a rather important one. In dedicating oneself to a Deity or group of Deities, the human being is initiating the dedication. What Wodening doesn’t seem to grasp about Patronage is that it’s not initiated by the human being in question, it’s Deity driven.(5) Use of the term implies that the Deity chose the person, not the other way around, and that is often (incorrectly) taken to imply that such a person is somehow special and particularly deserving of the Deity’s attention. This in fact, is an even bigger issue for most Heathens than the idea of spiritual elitism. In allowing for patronage, one is allowing for the possibility of a Deity driven spirituality. One is allowing for the possibility that the Gods can act directly and indisputably in our lives. One is also allowing for the possibility that They might exert a claim on some but not others, that spirituality is not a completely egalitarian field.(6)
In fact, I think that is my biggest issue with Wodening’s article, not that he finds the concept of patronage problematic, but that he misunderstands from the outset its nature. His article clearly assumes that the impetus for patronage comes from the human end of the equation. No thought appears to be given to what the Deity my want, or even to the possibility that a Deity might initiate such a relationship. Second to this, is the neat dismissal of Deity attention as something given only to the ‘elite.’ This automatically – whether this was the intended effect or not—makes engaged spirituality and devotion something relegated to the purview of specialists.
- Not to mention the dubious ability of someone who is, by his own words un-extraordinary, to judge and accurately evaluate how extraordinary someone else might be.
- I’m only commenting on American Heathenry here.
- See “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” by Max Weber. From this, the Victorians drew their ideas about the deserving and undeserving poor, by the way.
- See “Secularisms” by Pellegrini and Jakobsen and “Love the Sin” by the same authors.
- Even in relationships of human-human patronage, it is the dominant partner who determines whether or not to assume patronage. One may petition all one likes, but if the dominant partner (in the case of spiritual patronage, the Deity) doesn’t agree and initiate the relationship, it doesn’t exist.
- We do so like to invest spiritual attainment with moral and personal value. I do not believe that having the patronage of a Deity has anything to do with one’s personal worth. I think this is a matter of Mystery. I don’t know that there’s any easy answer to “why him and not me?” I do not, however, think it has a thing to do with personal worth, value, or goodness.